Ahead of this weekend’s men’s Sweet 16 games, we’re breaking down why each of the remaining teams will and won’t make the Final Four. We’re going region-by-region, moving now to the South (click here for the East), where Baylor, Villanova, Arkansas and Oral Roberts compete for a spot in college basketball’s final weekend.
No. 1 Baylor vs. No. 5 Villanova (Saturday, 5:15 p.m. ET, CBS)
How it got here: Beat No. 16 Hartford, 79–55; beat No. 9 Wisconsin, 76–63
Why it will make the Final Four: The Bears have undoubtedly been one of the three most complete teams in the country all season. A February COVID-19 pause derailed some of the team’s momentum—particularly on the defensive end—and led to its first two losses, but we’re a full month out now from its return. Baylor’s pressure forced sure-handed Wisconsin into 14 turnovers, something that should concern a Villanova team missing its starting point guard. The Bears’ path to the final weekend isn’t daunting, with the No. 2 and No. 4 seeds in their region having already been eliminated. Their offense is incredibly hard to stop because of all of its weapons, from stars Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell to reserves Matthew Mayer and Adam Flagler. Oh yeah, and they collectively shoot from three better than anyone in the country.
Why it won’t: Just three times this season have the Bears failed to score 1.0 points per possession. They lost two of those games, to Kansas and Oklahoma State. What else was in common in those defeats? They were two of only three times this season that Baylor shot below 31% from three. The only game it won while doing that was over Iowa State, a team that went 2–22 this season and didn’t win a single Big 12 game. Since returning from that COVID-19 pause, the Bears’ defense has ranked 127th nationally, per BartTorvik.com. While it may be getting back to its elite form, anything less leaves more room for error if the threes aren’t falling. If a team like Villanova or Arkansas gets hot from three, things could get uncomfortable.
How it got here: Beat No. 12 Winthrop, 73–63; beat No. 13 North Texas, 84–61
Why it will make the Final Four: This Wildcats team has already defied the odds to get here, overcoming the loss of Collin Gillespie and a stumble to end the season to reach another Sweet 16. They appear to have successfully figured out how to run the offense through the 6’ 9” Jeremiah Robinson-Earl instead, with the forward racking up 12 assists through two NCAA tournament games. Villanova also just absolutely torched a solid North Texas defense to the tune of 1.42 points per possession—the second-highest single-game mark among men’s teams in the Big Dance so far. It’ll need that kind of offensive firepower to get past Baylor, and if it manages to, it’d have a fair shot against either Arkansas or Oral Roberts. Plus, we’d be remiss to not mention this team is coached by Jay Wright, one of the top coaches in the game who is a proven winner in March.
Why it won’t: ‘Nova’s wins over the Mean Green and Winthrop were impressive—especially given how many, including yours truly, counted the ‘Cats out—but at the end of the day, they’ve still lost three of their last four games against power-conference opponents, and that leaves a lot of uncertainty. Baylor will be a big step up in weight class, and while the Wildcats’ offensive adjustments have worked, it’s unclear how exactly they can stop the dynamic Bears’ offense. Even before Gillespie’s injury, this was a shaky defensive team, one that lacks a true rim protector and is sub-200 nationally in both two- and three-point D. Per KenPom efficiency numbers, Villanova has faced one top-25 offense all season: No. 24 Creighton, with which it split a pair of games. Baylor’s offense is ranked third.
No. 3 Arkansas vs. No. 15 Oral Roberts (Saturday, 7:25 p.m. ET, TBS)
How it got here: Beat No. 14 Colgate, 85–68; beat No. 6 Texas Tech, 68–66
Why it will make the Final Four: Since Feb. 1, the Razorbacks have done little else but win; in fact, their SEC semifinal loss to LSU was their only defeat in their last 11 games. This is a team that’s been peaking at the right time, on the back of a defense that ranks third nationally during that 11-game period (per BartTorvick.com). Arkansas offers the defensive resistance that Ohio State (and to a decent extent, Florida) didn’t to Oral Roberts, and has already beaten the Golden Eagles once this season. Winning a potential Elite Eight matchup with Baylor would be difficult, but the backcourt of Moses Moody, JD Notae, Davonte Davis and Jalen Tate could certainly give the Bears plenty of problems, plus Arkansas has the dominant Justin Smith inside.
Why it won’t: The Razorbacks start two freshmen (a third, Jaylin Williams, started vs. Texas Tech), and the last men’s Final Four teams with multiple freshmen starters were Duke and Kentucky in 2014–15. The three remaining teams in the South Region start zero freshmen, and Baylor is particularly-veteran laden, so experience is a concern. Arkansas hasn’t shot the ball well from three over the last two months and has just one player in the rotation (Moody) making over 34% of his shots from deep on the season. Yet it draws the unfortunate luck of having two of the tournament’s top-three remaining perimeter-shooting teams in its region, plus a Villanova team that’s pretty good itself.
Why it will make the Final Four: The most improbable team still dancing is playing with more house money than anyone, and if there’s ever a year for something completely historic to happen (like, well, a No. 15 seed getting to the Final Four), isn’t it this one? The scoring prowess of Max Abmas and Kevin Obanor is a handful for any team to defend, and the Golden Eagles’ defensive limitations (they rank 238th on that end on KenPom) have yet to cost them, even holding Ohio State to one of its worst offensive showings of the season. This is the best free-throw shooting team in the country and the third-best perimeter-shooting team in the Sweet 16. Add in a team that takes good care of the ball, and it’s not hard to see why the glass slipper fits so well on Oral Roberts.
Why it won’t: ORU has had a wild ride to get here, but there’s a reason why only one other No. 15 seed has ever even made the Sweet 16, and never gone further. The lowest seed to ever make the men’s Final Four was No. 11, which has happened four times. The bracket hasn’t broken in Oral Roberts’s favor, either, with No. 3 Arkansas up next and a likely showdown with juggernaut Baylor in the Elite Eight even if ORU can get past the Razorbacks. At some point, the defensive shortcomings are going to catch up with Cinderella, or someone will shut down Obanor or Abmas. Arkansas is a very athletic team with a top-10 defense that has further improved since beating the Golden Eagles by 11 in December.
SI’s tournament newsletter analyzes everything you need to know about the Big Dance: what just happened and what’s happening next. Sign up for Morning Madness here.